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Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - Page updated at 04:30 p.m.
Driven to a fjord lately? A road trip in gentle, protective Norway
By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS
The New York Times
We were in a motorized rubber boat on the edge of Sognefjord, the longest fjord in Norway, slicing through water that resembled dark green glass. The sky yawned ever wider as the docks of the small town of Balestrand fell behind. All five passengers were wearing puffy, black full-body suits that worked as life jackets and, the captain assured us, would sustain us for two days if the untoward occurred.
A fjord looks like a lake but is, in fact, a slender arm of the salty seas, reaching deep inland. As you enter one, it can seem self-contained, entirely its own, until you turn a corner and another fjord opens before you. As we churned along, the boat barely seeming to touch the water, a long-preserved world sped past — evergreens standing thickly, erectly together, as if combed by a pick; red barns and dandelion patches dotting hillsides, snow draping across their tops; horses noshing on the grassy, inconveniently steep slopes.
And then we lurched around a bend into a tiny inlet ringed almost entirely by hills. It was, we would soon discover, that most Norwegian of luxuries — a private fjord.
Several years ago, a burly man named Ingebrigt Findebotten inherited several thousand acres of land here, and he had chosen to share it with the world by opening a nine-room guesthouse at the far end of the water, where our boat was stopping for coffee and snacks. We had planned to return to Balestrand with the rest of the passengers, but this fjord was arresting. We changed plans on a whim and, without luggage or a toothbrush, decided to stay for a night, here, in a modest house at the end of a sliver of water that was the only passage back to the world.
My wife and I had set out last summer on an amphibious road-and-ferry trip through the country's western fjords, hoping to encounter the old Norway of the Vikings, not the modern one that gives out the Nobel Peace Prize. This place, we hoped, would be a window into the Norway by which Norwegians like to define themselves — their version of the identity-giving American frontier.
Many Norwegians still tend to think of themselves as the inheritors of a life of hardship and risk. But they live today in one of the gentlest, most protective countries on earth, and it is commonly agreed that the nanny state has replaced the state of nature as Norway's dominant reality. These days immigrants from Nepal must be brought in to work on the mountains because the descendants of places like Findebotten would prefer to be bank tellers and lawyers. And so today the average Norwegian is a coddled creature whose folk memory, nevertheless, is of a struggle against nature.
"Our government is making laws and rules to protect ourselves against ourselves," said Turid Findebotten, Ingebrigt's wife. "And it's strange, because we're a tough people."
In earlier centuries, the steep hills and winding waterways of this area of western Norway bred hard living. On the hills above Findebotten, a band of sturdy women is said to have made cheese, trekking down every few days to deliver it to their men, who rowed the stuff across the fjords to market. The land is so steep and rocky that farming was nearly impossible, yet fertile pockets were arduously cultivated, and a complex system of wires above ground sent cut grass down hundreds of feet, from the places where it grew to the places where cattle could safely eat it. The mountain was generous — yielding strawberries in June, raspberries in July, myrtle berries in September — but also temperamental. So prone was it to landslides and avalanches that a wrong step here or there, according to the locals, could send a cascade of boulders or snow plunging down.
This is the old Norway that so many Norwegians identify with. But before we could get to it, we had to escape the intricately regulated, heavily taxed, precious one. Norway is, because of those taxes and regulations, among other factors, exorbitantly expensive — about $36-for-five-slices-of-pizza-and-two-sodas-at-Pizza-Hut expensive.
Stung by the cost of things ($20 burgers from a street shack! $13-a-gallon gas!), we decided to arm ourselves with groceries. We loaded up on sandwich ingredients, plus potato chips, chocolates, paper plates and plastic cutlery, at Rema 1000, a local supermarket at our point of departure, the western coastal town of Alesund, which we had flown into. Then we packed our rented Citroen C4 with the food, mounted the GPS and were off into the Norwegian woods.
That first day of driving, toward a speck of a town called Oye, took us over roads that cut through valleys. Richly green mountains alternated with snow-glazed ones. Lakes surfaced from time to time. Some of the roads, closed off by metal gates during the hard winters, had just reopened. It was early June, and the season was fresh.
At the front desk of the Hotel Union Oye, a receptionist in a frilly frock suggestive of a Jane Austen novel handed us a key and a metal bowl holding three garlic cloves. "This is for the Blue Room," she said. "All of the other rooms have the names of royalty — but not this one, because this one is the one with the ghost." As it happened, the bowl was to be kept just outside the door to deter said ghost.
The hotel had one foot in the raw Norway and another in the precious one. Outside was the immensity of nature — a fierce waterfall, sharp peaks and quiet roads covered with black slugs fat enough that we had to avoid them during a long bike ride through the valley. Inside, the decor spoke of Norway's longstanding quest to become European, sophisticated and refined — chandeliers everywhere, doilies on the dinner plates, pictures of German royals on the walls.
At 10:20 p.m., it was still bright outside. It is wondrous to have light last so long, as it does at these high latitudes in the summer. But it can also feel perverse. Living elsewhere, you watch the day fade first, and then slowly you, too, dissolve. Your limbs tire; your instincts dull. It feels right, because the day itself has called it a day. But not here, where the day soldiers on and you're on your own in your decline.
I had dismissed the ghost thing as clever branding and wanted to keep the bowl of garlic inside the room. Priya, my wife, who was more open to the possibility of ghosts, insisted that we keep it out. Yet it was she who slept easily and I who heard ghostlike sounds all night: the hotel creaked and cranked and at times, under the influence of fierce winds, whined and wailed. The open window kept slamming shut and then reopening, and when it finally woke me, I saw just outside the room a thin tree bending over again and again, as if engaged in competitive Japanese bowing.
The road trip resumed the next morning: our destination for the second day was Balestrand, a town on the Sognefjord, a little more than 150 miles south by road and ferry. We stopped for lunch when we saw a pleasant set of picnic benches beside a lake, which we later learned was no ordinary lake but rather Lake Hornindal, one of the deepest in Europe at more than 1,600 feet. We continued on toward the town of Stryn, which we had been advised was a good place for Norwegian shopping. But we arrived on a bad day.
Or the best day ever, if your best day involves a gridlocked parade of classic cars. Once a year, the town, which is a few streets wide by a few streets long (though stylish out of proportion to its size), goes fanatical about old cars. As we arrived, a dozen vintage Cadillacs in various hues were turning onto the main road, honking madly. Corvettes and Porsches mingled with military tanks, Scania trucks and septic-tank haulers. This was the subtle, Norwegian version of a frenzy: people standing on the curb, tugging arms downward so as to get the truckers to beep.
We took cover in the Moods of Norway store, a fashion chain that seeks to distill the country, in all of its rawness and preciousness, in its quirkiness and warmth and steely individualism, into a brand. It notes, for example, the number of registered tractors in the country on labels on the sleeves of its blazers, which come in the familiar colors as well as bright floral prints. The space was decorated with a stuffed owl, a photograph of tagged lambs and a video screen on the changing-room door showing children riding atop sheep: the rustic old Norway sold to the fashionable new one as a kind of inside joke.
We returned to the road. A short time later, we were on E60, winding around a hill, when an oncoming car swung around the bend of a too-narrow road. We banged mirrors, and soon discovered that the best thing about having an accident in Norway is that the person in the other car tends to be Norwegian.
A woman got out, and the first thing she did was to ask for my version of the incident. She then offered her own, which conflicted entirely with mine. But she hastened to suggest that we write a neutral report laying blame on no one. I swathed our now-dangling mirror with some paper towel and a plastic bag, to keep it from falling off. We forged onward.
The drive carried us south through fjord country. The roads hovered just a few feet over the water, and the landscape alternated between the wintry and the verdant. After long hours of driving and a few hops on ferries (which leave often and can be boarded without reservations), we reached Balestrand around midnight. It was still bright enough to gaze across the eerie, sprawling Sognefjord, just beyond our balcony in the Kviknes Hotel.
Many Norwegian painters used this area as their subject. In the morning, the hotel's owner showed us the property's extensive collection of artwork of the surrounding parts and suggested that we go on a boat ride around the fjord. That was how we had ended up at Findebotten.
A short while after we had settled in there, we went on a grueling two-hour hike. Findebotten had marked certain trees with bright orange paint to indicate a trail, because of the risk of triggering a landslide. We progressed up through the mountain, stepping into three-inch-deep moss, pressing through swampy crossings, jumping over streams, until we reached an elevated valley above which greater mountains towered. It was lush, rocky, dazzling, desperate country. It somehow made me think of dinosaurs.
Then the raw again gave way to the precious. Back at Findebotten's hotel came an immaculate Norwegian dinner: pink trout with creme fraiche and lemon, asparagus, snap peas, rosemary potatoes and bread, wetted by a bottle of Portuguese wine. (In a recent email, the Findebottens informed me that they had put the property up for sale, and that it was operating this summer only as a "self-service" guesthouse, available on request.)
The fourth day brought rain. We took a motorboat and a ferry from Findebotten back to Balestrand, where we returned to our injured, abandoned car. We were headed to the Geiranger fjord, reputedly one of the most beautiful. The clouds seemed low enough to touch, which gave the fjords a different look: white and milky rather than green and rocky as before. Mist rose over the water. The place seemed more ethereal with precipitation. Somewhere on E39, not far from the commune of Gloppen, we encountered a rural traffic jam, caused by a group of unherded goats.
We began to wind up a series of hairpin turns, scaling mountains that seemed at once immense and low-slung, curving gently toward the sky. And then rather suddenly the world went icy, and the green fell away, and we were driving through basins of black rock and snow at more than 3,000 feet above sea level. Snow banks taller than the car lined the road. It was an entirely new landscape: stark and open-skied, more reminiscent of the American West than of anything we had seen that week.
When we arrived at the Hotel Union in Geiranger, which overlooks the fjord, the mist was obscuring the vista, but you could make out its magnificence. We took in the view from the hotel's outdoor hot tub, and I reached the conclusion that one should never look out on a fjord — or drink beer — without being half-submerged in hot water.
We saw the fjord more clearly the next morning. We took a two-hour ferry ride across it, threading through the water with mountains on either side, receiving a basic education about the area over a public-address system intended for the tourists who made up most of the ferry's clientele.
The purpose of this education was to remind us that this was more than just beautiful scenery. Here people lived and tamed the land and jousted with nature. Here, we heard once again, life was hard. People used to cross the fjord every day to get fresh water from lakes for their fruit trees. Up on the right, they told us, was a cliff so steep that children used to be tied to farmers' plots to avoid their falling off.
We got off the ferry and took to the road for the final stretch back to Alesund. The fog was so thick in parts that we could see no farther than 10 feet ahead. For a time, it made Norway seem immaculate and treacherous all at once.
Before long, we were back in Alesund, in a sumptuous hotel with all the luxurious fixings. But the old Norway, resisting history, sought the last word: atop the queen bed, instead of the usual one comforter, were two distinct ones lying side by side. This effectively split the bed in two, making it strangely utilitarian: it was easier for each person to stay warm, but harder to achieve intimacy. Nature, Norway seemed to reassure itself, is tough going, even with a thermostat and good heating. Defeating it is the most urgent priority of all.
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